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The Dark Hero’s last laugh

David Selbourne says both the left and right in Britain have been traumatised by the end of communism. Labour lost its lodestar and Conservatism its moral compassSeiko is collaborating with leaders and innovators in a variety of fields to celebrate the release of the Ananta Collection

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

‘We are building an advanced socialist society,’ Czechoslovak communists claimed a couple of years before the regime’s collapse in December 1989. What did that mean? I asked Pavel Bratinka the other day. A former leading dissident, a devout Catholic and a physicist by training, from 1993 to 1996 he was deputy foreign minister of his restored country. ‘It meant,’ he replied, ‘an advanced form of misery. But communism’s furies and its mumbo-jumbo were fortunately prevented from conquering the whole world.’

From his student days onwards, Bratinka was victimised for his refusal to truckle to party authorities, eventually finding work in manual jobs. When I first met him in February 1987, he was a stoker and night-watchman — billeted in a hut on Prague waste ground — and dreaming of a time when ‘we will all be free’. Vaclav Havel had told me much the same in February 1988: he wanted to see the Czech people ‘straighten up as human beings once more’.

The German poet Heine had envisaged a ‘frightful duel’ with the ‘dark hero’, as he called communism in 1842, but he predicted that it would have only a ‘temporary role in the modern tragedy’. In the event, the overturnings in 1989-90 which shattered the ‘communist bloc’ matched the 1789 French Revolution in consequence and reach. Presidiums and politburos from Berlin to Moscow and beyond were swept aside, Marx gave way to the market, communism to consumerism, and Pravda to Prada. Only the Chinese, acrobats that they are, have pulled off the high-wire trick of running their capitalism under party direction, while North Korea and Cuba are failed states.

The world created in central Europe in the name of the ‘proletariat’ was a dismal one in the 1980s, a ‘numb’ world, says Bratinka today, in which ‘the wicked and stupid co-operated almost in lock-step and had a monopoly of assembly and power, while millions had to give their public approval for a system they privately regarded as criminal or idiotic’. It was a world of fears, privileges for the party elites, low-level economic activity and a daily struggle for existence; Ceausescu’s ‘workers’ democracy’, in which ‘class enemies’ were for the high jump, was a form of fascism.

‘To you,’ I was told by a bitter Hungarian dissenter in April 1987, ‘socialism is theory. To us, it is practice.’ In Romania, where the silence at nightfall was that of a civil society in ruins, the system was described to me (in whispers) as ‘proletarian racism’; the Czech writer Milan Simecka saw his country as ‘under the domination of plebeians’.

And when the whole damned edifice crashed 20 years ago, taking the Soviet Union down with it — a veritable fall of Jericho — Eastern Europe’s leading dissenters and rebels emerged from the shadows, leaving their hiding places, building sites, underground seminars and janitors’ basements, and became presidents, parliamentarians and professors.

For example, there was Zhelyu Zhelev. A historian who was under constant harassment for his democratic views, I met him in Sofia in April 1989. In his small, overcrowded and bugged apartment, with his wife trudging wearily to and from the kitchen, he had angrily declared that Marxism was ‘obsolete’. Outside in the street, below his windows, a security police recording-van was parked. ‘The people,’ he went on, ‘know that socialism’ — which he called a ‘police-dominated system of bureaucratic human domination’ — ‘has failed.’ The next time I met him, less than two years later, he was on a state visit to Britain as president of Bulgaria.

At first, some hard-leftists in Britain sought to conceal from themselves what had happened. In the Morning Star on 14 June 1990, Richard Gott, at the time assistant editor of the Guardian, described the overthrow of the communist system as a ‘counter-revolution’, the party line; others kidded themselves that the fallen regimes were ‘not really socialist’. The greater truth is that it was not only central committees and their dead-eyed apparatchiks who were buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. The credit of socialist nostrums as a whole took a beating; or as Milan Simecka memorably declared in February 1988, ‘existing socialism’ had ‘stolen from socialism any future it might have had’.

Nor has the ground been recovered, despite the growing gap between rich and poor in the Western democracies, and a ‘capitalist crisis’ whose lineaments Marx foretold. Indeed, convinced socialists are hard to find these days, and there are even fewer reds under the beds; while right-wing Americans who currently accuse the ideas-lite Barack Obama of being a crypto-socialist and even a Marxist can have little knowledge of what socialism and Marxism are, or were.

To get closer to the heart of leftist weakness and failure, it is also necessary to go back to the 1960s. In ‘progressive’ circles, there have always been what Orwell scornfully called ‘sandal wearers’ and ‘fruit-juice drinkers’. But from the Swinging Sixties onwards, ‘alternative’ forms of anti-authoritarian radicalism took off in earnest, doubtless stoked in Britain by MI5, especially in the sectarian ‘Trotskyite’ groups. Contributing to, and boosted by, the May ’68 revolt in France and the camaraderie of opposition to the Vietnam war, they had the wind in their sails — and a lot of it was wind — well before communism’s collapse.

The fall of the Wall finished off the old left’s hair-shirt hardliners. But it had a deeper effect too. As Kevin Davey declared in Tribune in May 1990, in a (brief) moment of truth-telling, ‘The Western left, even in its most independent forms’ — that is, in its ‘alternative’, libertarian forms — ‘has been traumatised by the collapse of Stalinist regimes. Some have played Canute in the face of democratic tides, many have drowned, and a few are surfing on the waves of change.’

To what surfboards, or lifeboats, did the ‘traumatised’ and disoriented left take, with ‘existing socialism’ in collapse? They took to the surfboards, in construction since the 1960s, of the politics of gender, sexuality, lifestyle, and rights, rights, rights, tricked out with a few shards of more orthodox socialist belief. The Guardian, with its ragbag agenda, is the best showcase of it in Britain: a shallow mix of multiculturalism and metro-shopping, feminism and football, celeb-fixation and sub-left posturing; a caboodle for which Orwell would have felt even greater scorn today.

And what else did we get in Britain, as old socialism went under? We got New Labour. In it, even ex-Trot sectarians and former radical swingers found a political home; and, after a slick haircut and a visit to the opticians for a pair of rimless specs, a vehicle — for the politically correct and the politically corrupt — in which to ride to government with, at the last, a seat in a corporate boardroom.

New Labour’s (largely unadmitted) argument was that, given the ruin of the ‘socialist project’, there was now no real choice but to ‘go with the flow of market forces’ in a ‘post-ideological world’; no real choice, if Labour was to survive at all, but to bury the class hatchet and ditch the proletarian cause. It had to ‘open up’ the public s
ector, rebrand itself as non-socialist, and treat the political realm as a marketplace like any other.

In doing so, New Labour gained and held office. But despite the guff about the ‘Third Way’, it was at a heavy cost: that of losing its bearings on the ‘middle ground’. It is the same ground in which the Tories may themselves sink. Indeed, the right has also been harmed by socialism’s demise, by the shooting of its red fox. How so? Because the absence of the old opposition has permitted the licence of free-marketry to run riot.

But did not the free market and all its works bring back the light in Eastern Europe? They did. Yet they also brought to post-communist societies a variety of political and ethical ills with which we are familiar, and of which we too have had our fill. To Pavel Bratinka, who resigned from the Czech government in 1997 and left parliament the following year, liberation from what he calls the ‘red ogre’ has had its own costs: among them, competitive resort to ‘populist tricks’ to gain office, ‘evasion’ of the public’s ‘real problems’, and corruption. It has left ‘most of the electorate’ in what he calls a ‘sullen’ condition, as in Britain. ‘If not checked and reversed,’ he adds, ‘such afflictions could bring the free polity down.’

For the political realm is not to be treated as a marketplace, especially at a time when most of us have lost our sense of a once-shared past and many of our hopes for the future. Not all is wealth-creation, competition and the ‘freedom to choose’; or, as Bratinka puts it, market values are ‘not sufficient’ to ‘sustain’ us. Above all, we are citizens before we are consumers. ‘Proletarian dictatorship,’ the Hungarian philosopher Gaspar Tamas told me in April 1987, ‘has destroyed the notion of the citizen.’ Now, the free market and globalisation bid to do so in turn.

Furthermore, the state, deformed though it became under ‘existing socialism’, is as necessary to a polity as is the law, particularly in a period of moral bewilderment, social implosion and economic crisis. To demonise it for the discredit into which socialism brought it is foolish; to see state action of almost any kind as potentially, or actually, a threat to freedom is even more so. There can be no liberty without order, while laissez-faire in the market, as in moral conduct, merely invites the far right and Islam to advance further upon us. Milton Friedman is no match for Mohammed.

Thus, Gott was right to say in the Morning Star, back in June 1990, that it had been a ‘bleak end of century for socialists, but this should give liberals no cause for cheer. They are now in the front line.’ Alongside the body of Heine’s ‘dark hero’, as at the end of Hamlet, lie the corpses of socialism and — a lesser matter in the scale of things — of British Labour. But isn’t the runaway free market, and the moral free-fall that goes with it, also destined for a ‘temporary role in the modern tragedy’?

That is the question.

David Selbourne’s Death of the Dark Hero: Eastern Europe, 1987-90 (Cape, 1990) has recently been reissued by Faber and Faber.

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